Who's the Americas' best team? U.S., Argentina to clash once again
"Our biggest rival is the team we are going to face on Saturday," Delfino said Wednesday night after Argentina kept its record perfect in the Tournament of the Americas by rallying to defeat Brazil 86-79 in overtime.
That unbeaten record will be put to the test Thursday against the United States, which also stayed unblemished Wednesday night with a 118-79 victory over Uruguay.
"I don't know what's going to happen, but I know we're going to fight -- that's what really matters," Argentina's Luis Scola said. "When you play hard, fight and compete, you can afford to lose. If you don't compete, even when you win, you have to be unhappy."
This will be the first meeting between the teams since the bronze-medal game at the World Championship in Japan last summer, a game the Americans won handily by playing with a much higher level of determination and composure. Argentina defeated the United States in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics in Athens and at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis when it became the first team to defeat a U.S. team comprised of NBA players.
"The caliber of the team you play against brings out more from you, and Argentina, we ultimately respect what they've done, and the team they have here," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Americans defeated Argentina twice at the 2003 Tournament of the Americas, once in the second round -- an eight-point victory in a competitive game -- and again in the championship game when they routed Argentina by 33 points.
"It's definitely become a rivalry between us," said James who shot 11-for-11 (upping his field goal percentage for the tournament to an astounding 79.7) and scored 26 points before sitting out the entire second half against Uruguay. "If we continue to do what we've been doing for the last two to two-and-a-half weeks, we'll be fine."
Most of Argentina's best players -- including Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Pepe Sanchez, Walter Herrmann and Ruben Wolkowyski -- are skipping this tournament, leaving Scola and Delfino as the team's lone holdovers from 2002 and 2004. But Argentina has been getting steady play from new starting point guard Pablo Prigioni (53 assists and 17 turnovers for the tourney), who Krzyzewski praised as a quintessential international playmaker, and sixth man Paolo Quinteros (13.6 ppg, 52 percent on field goals). Scola is averaging a team-high 17.9 points while shooting 54 percent, and Delfino is contributing 15.7 points per game.
"They just have great chemistry," Krzyzewski said. "Even though they have some younger guys, they're still in the same system. They have continuity with the coaching staff, system, player development."
The infusion of new players "puts a couple guys in starring roles, and I think it's elevated their games -- Scola and Delfino," Krzyzewski said.
Scola had 23 points and 12 rebounds and Delfino had 17 points and 10 boards in Wednesday's victory over Brazil in which the Argentines came back from a 17-point deficit.
The game carried little meaning for Argentina in the overall scheme of the tournament, since they had already clinched a finish of no worse than third, which assured them of not having to face the United States in the semifinals. But despite the game carrying little weight, Argentina didn't rest its big guns.
Scola said they will take the same approach into Thursday night's game against the United States, which he considers the class of the field.
"The team we played in Japan was a pretty good team, but I think in this kind of tournament, the style of the game is better for Team America because everyone tries to play their way -- fast, one-on-one, running up and down, scoring many points each game -- and that's good for the U.S. team because they like to play that way," Scola said. "They have so much talent and so much athleticism. When we play in Europe, the Olympics or the World Championship, it's a little bit different because European teams play calm 60- or 70-point games, and I think they feel a little bit more uncomfortable with that game.
"So I think this team, for this championship, is completely perfect. You could not make a better team -- maybe if you had Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal -- but everybody else, those are the best. It's the best team you can get."
The Americans are expected to have Carmelo Anthony back in the lineup after he sat out Wednesday's game with a sore heel. They'll also have Kobe Bryant, who stayed in the locker room to rest during the entire second half of the victory over Uruguay.
Bryant, by the way, said he "hadn't really had a chance to speak to" Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was in attendance Wednesday night.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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